A driver and crew chief tandem is arguably one of the most underrated things in NASCAR. Think of it as a good player and a good coach in stick-and-ball sports. You don’t normally see one without the other.
Well, one of the more underrated driver-crew chief swaps of the offseason was the one that saw William Byron get Rudy Fugle in charge on top of his pit box for 2021. This combo had seven wins in 23 starts in the Truck Series a few years ago and for the first time since then, they’re reunited again and it’s a move that’s already paying off.
Byron, had never led a lap in Cup competition at the Homestead-Miami Speedway prior to this past weekend and he walks away with 102 of them including the final lap when it was all said and done. He also started off his career with no wins in his first 97 career starts but has since scored two in the last 14.
Furthermore, Byron now has five top 10 finishes in his last nine starts dating back to last season and eight in the last 15 overall too.
“I think honestly the work and the effort goes back a long ways,” said Byron. “Getting Rudy on board and just having a guy like that to work with. We really think the same way, and it helps us in a lot of ways to progress through races and communicate well and work through the off-season.
“I’d say it’s a lot to do with off-season prep, and as soon as we got into the race the track was super slick to start. We had to start pretty far back but made our way up and just had to keep adjusting on the car and kind of finding those little bits. I think the 19 was really strong to start the race. The 17 was surprisingly really good, so we had to kind of work on that and had a really good restart the last one. The 2 pushed me super hard down the backstretch and the car was just good enough.
“It’s cool when you have cars like that and you can make moves and make them stick. Love this racetrack; it’s really fun.”
This could be the momentum that he needs to get his career jump started in the way Chase Elliott’s was following his early victories a few years back. Fugle, is his third crew chief four seasons and it appears this could be one that is here to stay.
“I mean, obviously you have to back it up with results, so I think for me, I wanted to make sure we had results, but I think the results come when you have people like that to work with. You think on the same page, and somebody who puts that kind of effort in,” Byron continued about Fugle.
“He puts a lot of effort in, but he’s obviously very intelligent. I feel like for me, it goes back to the Truck days and what we did there and the feelings that I had in those race cars and the things that I wanted to have in my Cup car and the feelings there. He’s really leaned heavily on Alan Gustafson and all the crew chiefs at HMS to get up to speed and we have the best resources out there, so it’s all about making the most of them.
“I feel like for us we just communicate throughout the race. He knows how to push my buttons and get me motivated and get the answers out of me that he needs to make the car better.
“It’s all about people in this sport. I’ve heard like Kevin say that and multiple people say that. You’ve got to have the people — I think that with Rudy, we had a lot of success on mile-and-a-halfs. He knows what I want in a race car. I credit a lot to Kyle, working with Kyle Busch for a long time and kind of understanding some of the things there.
“I didn’t really — I wasn’t concerned that we were going to struggle at the mile-and-a-halfs. I think it was just doing well at every racetrack we go to. I’ve had success at Homestead in the past with the trucks and then Xfinity, so I wasn’t concerned that Cup I hadn’t gotten the finishes yet because I really like coming here, and it’s so low grip and each lap is different that it kind of takes adaptation. Sometimes you don’t hit it right but you’ve got to kind of search and find grip.
“I think the biggest weakness for me, I never really ran the wall here in Cup, so kind of understanding how I could do that. I watched some on-boards of Kyle Larson and just kind of trying to see if I could do that if I needed to, and luckily we were able to do that at times tonight just to kind of keep our gap the way it was.
“It was good.”
Fugle says that while this win can be considered somewhat of a shock, it doesn’t mean that come this Fall that they can’t be a championship caliber team then either.
“I mean, first of all, with the weird winners we’ve had so far, and I don’t think we’re weird but it kind of is a little bit weird, you have to be careful that you’re not going to get too many one wins, so you want to keep attacking for that reason,” said the first year crew chief in Cup. “Two is we want to learn how to be a winning race team. In the playoffs to win a championship you have to win a lot of races, so we have to learn how to do that now and get used to that to be able to contend for a championship.
“We’re not a championship team yet, but over the next 20-some weeks we’re going to become one, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
Fugle says that the circumstances of him being in Cup with Byron now is perfect timing. The Cup car is more similar to the Truck Series right now anyways. So, a lot of what he and Byron had together in Trucks translates over.
“What helped us about the previous relationship was the fact that we’ve worked together before and I knew him, I knew how to push his buttons, I knew how to motivate him, and that helped buy me some time to learn these Cup cars that I don’t know yet, so I think that’s the biggest thing,” he said.
“The 550 stuff is pretty similar to the trucks. We fight a lot of the same things. You’re trying to balance speed versus handling and drag versus downforce. It’s a lot of the same stuff, which is fun. And then I think most importantly, I think the car needs the same thing that a truck needs to do at a mile-and-a-half. Yeah, that part is fun, getting into this season and fighting the same type of little things in the war rooms, trying to decide on do you need straightaway speed or corner speed that week.”
Fugle also credits Chad Knaus for getting Byron to where he’s at today as he said without much knowledge of Cup cars prior to this year, it wouldn’t have been a good combo for he and Byron to team up prior to now. Knaus, helped mold Byron which made it easier for he and Fugle to hit the ground running.
“Chad (Knaus) prepped William (Byron) to get to this point,” said Fugle. “I could not have done that three years ago. I couldn’t have prepped to learn how to work on Cup cars and prepped William, and then he built a great team. Not one other person has been changed out on this race team. I came in, and this was an amazing race team. We’ve got all the right pieces, and like I said, William said, they’re young and they’re ready and we should be here for a while. We should be able to go and do the right things, so super exciting.”
“I think Chad brought me from running 20th in the Cup Series to making the playoffs two years in a row, and I think that was huge,” Byron said. “Gave me a chance to really learn under the fire and kind of put myself in some situations that I could learn from some veteran drivers. I had a couple run-ins with Kyle at one time, Brad. None of that stuff would have happened if I wasn’t up there and fast. That’s a lot of credit to Chad and the preparation.
“I think what Chad did well was the preparation side. I mean, the team that he’s put around me with young guys is kind of here to stay, and I credit that to him for finding the right people.
He found a lot of good people that want to come to work every day, want to do a good job, so I credit that to him, but with Rudy and I, yeah, I don’t really compare it to anything. I think it’s just that we have that — we mesh, and it is what it is.”